Sunday, December 10, 2006

Hail Mary, ordinary?

I really don't intend to respond to every message in the Christmas series at my wife's church, but I guess so far it's shaping up that way. Perhaps it's inevitable that I would have something to say about a message on Mary, regardless of which Evangelical is giving it. I want to say first of all that I think there's a lot of good in the message--Mary is significant for her response to the annunciation, she herself was all about pointing others to her Son, indeed she would have been embarrassed by the kind of attention given to her since then, and what made her response unique had to do with her unique spiritual preparation. All are excellent points, and all would be affirmed by the Tradition of the Church. (I suppose that might surprise a lot of Evangelicals.) I also appreciate his application point, that young people should be encouraged to emulate Mary in their own walk with God.

On the other hand (there's always another hand, isn't there?), I do take some serious issue with his overstated argument about how ordinary Mary was, and the resulting failure to make some important connections. I guess I would sum up my challenge with this question: Was it coincidence that God chose someone with such a unique spiritual life? You see, he acknowledges a uniqueness, when he brings up the question he and the other staff discussed earlier in the week--how could Mary have had that kind of faith in response to the angel's message? When you think about the implications--the life it would mean for her, for her son--how could she trust God so completely? Their answer was that it was her connection to Scripture. Her song exhibits an exceptional degree of both knowledge and internalization of the Old Testament, particularly for a girl in that culture. He says that she must have had amazing parents and an amazing local rabbi, to have gained such intimate knowledge of Scripture. He even refers to the tradition that her parents were named Joachim and Anna and says he'd like to meet them someday.

But Tradition could also tell him that Mary was devoted to God as a child, that as with Samuel in the Old Testament, Mary was born in answer to prayer and was dedicated to service in the temple. She grew up surrounded by the liturgy of Israel. She developed a strong walk with God and chose a life of virginity, but because there was no place for adult women to serve as virgins in the temple, and because her parents had already died, she was betrothed to the elder kinsman Joseph. Tradition could also remind him that God chooses people when they are adequately prepared for the task at hand. Yes, Mary is important for the way she responded, but her response did not take God by surprise. He did not luck out with the choice. Her life to that point had been her preparation, and God was in that process as much as he was in the miraculous event of her virginal conception.

It seems to me that more than our image of Mary suffers when we go out of our way to make her seem ordinary--when we think that her longings consisted of things like being pretty, or getting a puppy for Christmas, or finding a husband. This is not to say that she had no ordinary human interests, but what is there about her that would lead us to think she was so distracted by the mundane concerns of ordinary teenagers (particularly ordinary teenagers today, who usually get to delay even the normal responsibilities of adult life much longer than their ancient counterparts)? How do we look at her extraordinary intimacy with God and with Scripture, her extraordinary faith, to accept in a moment such a profound message for her life, and conclude that she must have been like any other young woman her age? Don't we believe that intimacy with God makes a difference in our priorities, in our longings? Do we imagine that with such preparation in her life, there was nothing visibly different about her until this one, pivotal moment?

I would submit that such a view lowers our expectations of what God can do in each of our lives. It is symptomatic of a deficient respect for the saints in general. Is any greater evidence needed of why saints are important in our worship and spiritual growth? Without seriously grasping their success, we have no reason to expect that we could ever be seriously different from our fallen selves. Sure, there might be improvements here and there, but a truly successful spiritual life? That is little more than a nice idea. Without saints, we idolize ordinariness. Much like the historian who says miracles in the Bible must not have happened, because we don't normally observe such things, or the biologist who says creation must not have happened, because we see only these ongoing processes around us, the principle of ordinariness starts from what we observe here and now, and explains away anything that doesn't conform. We see a bunch of ordinary people around us, so that must be all there is. It's all there ever has been, and all there ever will be--so don't expect too much. The alternative works the other way around--look to the saints who have gone before. Countless people have lived radical lives for God. If you don't see any around you, get on your knees and repent. It's possible, it's what he wants for us, and it's the only life worth pursuing.


handmaid leah said...

This is indeed a lovely defense of our Lady, Theotokos. I would only make two comments and ask you to consider them, humbly. The Lady Theotokos, indeed points the way to our Lord, but to say that she wouldn't understand all the fuss made over her, when she herself states that, "all generations shall call me blessed." is a bit of a misnomer. In the Orthodox view she is above the Saints and is not refered to as one, her place is at the right hand of the Lord, as befits the "Queen of Heaven" because the Lord only had one mother. In Jewish tradition, the mother of the King is the Queen as I am sure you know.
The second point is that, in the Orthodox Tradition, the Lady Theotokos was not an Immaculate Conception. Joachim and Anna prayed for a child to the Lord, but she was conceived in the natural way, this is Blessed Augustine's invention and has lead to some sad dogmatical errors in the Latin Church. Read St. John Maximovitch's very informative artical:
The Orthodox Veneration of Mary
the Birthgiver of God
I have very much enjoyed your musings,
the handmaid,

Trevor said...

Thanks for reading and responding! I might not have been entirely clear on these two points, so I want to be more explicit now. First, I didn't say she wouldn't understand the fuss; there's a subtle difference. What I said was, "she would have been embarrassed by the kind of attention given to her since then." She had some expectation of it, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that the reason Scripture itself doesn't make such a big deal of her (barely mentions her outside the Gospels) is that they were sensitive to her own modesty while she was alive. Of course, my understanding of the implications here is somewhat different from that of the preacher whose message I was critiquing. I was trying to point out the common ground and ended up obscuring my own thoughts on the matter.

Also, I realize the distinction between Mary and the saints, but there is also a category in which they all fit together (I'm not sure what to call it if not "saints"--the term really is quite flexible in its applications), and I do think that a lot of what bothers Protestants about Mary would apply to the saints in general, if perhaps to a lesser degree.

Second, I don't think I made any claim of the immaculate conception. I did say, "Her life to that point had been her preparation, and God was in that process as much as he was in the miraculous event of her virginal conception," but of course there is an ambiguity in the fact that "her conception" can mean "the event where she was conceived" or "the event where she conceived." When I wrote it, I thought it was clear enough that I was talking about the virgin birth of Christ; also, the doctrine of the immaculate conception does not, as far as I know, have anything to do with Anna conceiving as a virgin.

Here again the problem may come from my concession to Evangelical doctrine. The virgin birth of Christ can actually include a few different components--virginal conception, virginal delivery (specifically, that her womb was not opened), and perpetual virginity. It seems like most Protestants these days accept only the first. Orthodox and Catholics (and the Reformers themselves) accept the first and the last. I believe the second is Catholic dogma, but there seems to be some variation in Orthodox teaching. I've seen Fr. Hopko state that her womb was opened at the delivery, and a reviewer (I forget whom) argue that it was not (and that Hopko is clueless of Orthodox teaching if he thinks otherwise), while I happened to notice that Bl. Theophylact agrees with Fr. Hopko. Anyway, my point was to highlight the conception, which is the element that everyone agrees on (aside from those who reject the notion altogether).

So all that's to say that I don't believe in the immaculate conception and wasn't trying to affirm it either. Thanks for the link, though. Anything by St. John of Shanghai & SF is worth reading!

Roland said...

A brief reply to Handmaid Leah:

Bl. Augustine might have created the theological foundation on which the Catholic Church later constructed its dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but I have it on good authority that Bl. Augustine himself actually denied the Immaculate Conception. As is so often the case, the problem is not so much the teaching of Augustine himself, but of the use to which his teaching was put in succeeding centuries by the Western Church, which took to reading Augustine outside the context of patristic debate.

Also, I'm not sure it is correct to say the Theotokos is "above the Saints." This language entails the same danger as the Immaculate Conception - it tends to obscure the full humanity of Mary, without which belief in the full humanity of Jesus is also obscured.